April 29, 2012
This week we have a special guest post written by my aunt, Ingrid Nelson, who is a doctor in New York City. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did! Keep a lookout for future “Doctor’s Orders” posts. -Chloe
My grandpa Phil started every day with a small glass of vodka. Just enough, my mother explained, to fortify him for the day. When she told me this I was skeptical. Phil’s morning tipple, I thought, was a very bad sign, a prelude to a day of excess and a life of wantonness and waste.
But I’ve learned that I was wrong. A tipple in the morning is a pretty common way to start out the day for many people. Take my Albanian patients, for example. Some tell me that they wake up and have a glass, a small one, of raki, and then go off to their their jobs feeling refreshed and invigorated. I was skeptical again… but I’ve interrogated their spouses, children, and friends who generally report that the man (almost always a man) in question is a reliable and trustworthy relative—hard-working and competent.
Why can a morning tipple make the forthcoming day seem so full of promise and adventure? Where, exactly, is the magic? I agree with Falstaff, Shakespeare’s magnificent tippler, who placed it in the brain and (as he said in Henry IV), “makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes.” Can there be a better way to start the day?
My grandpa Phil was born in Kharkov. He came to New York City as a young man, met and married my grandmother, Pauline, also a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine. They set up house in Washington Heights and, over time, had four children. Phil supported his family through the depression of the 1920’s by selling life insurance. Considering the circumstances of the time, this surely required a very nimble attitude. Phil acquired it: he always had a job and never failed to pay the rent. For several years running, my mother told me, he won an award for being a tip top salesman. In the evenings he read the socialist newspapers and argued politics with anyone who would listen. In the morning, he had a tipple.
On Sundays, the family had a habit. Phil, Pauline, and the kids boarded the M5 bus, taking the top deck if the weather was fine, and rode down Riverside Drive to the lower east side to meet with relatives and eat bagels and whatever—lox, whitefish, maybe some sable. And also a small glass for Phil, as the savory and salty tastes of these foods go so well with spirits. Some of the places they went to are still in business and I’ve been to them. They have become quite up-scale and I think that Phil would be surprised to see them now.
When money got tighter trips to the lower east side were no longer possible. So nimble Phil dug back into his Russian roots and came up with a cheap alternative Sunday morning breakfast. One that would also go with his tipple.
He would get up early on Sunday while the kids were still sleeping. He’d drift into the kitchen. “Anyone want an onion sandwich?” he would shout. Their apartment was small enough so everyone could hear him. The response of the kids, as per my Mom, was: “No. Let us sleep. We don’t want an onion sandwich.”
Then Phil would do his trick. He would take out a large frying pan, put a chunk of butter in it, and lay some slices of onions on top. He kept the heat low. He cut slices of white bread, to warm. He took the opportunity to smoke a cigar and drink his small glass of vodka as he watched the onions dissolve into the fat and slowly turn brown. The rich savory smell spread through the apartment. And one by one, the kids wandered into the kitchen asking for an onion sandwich. There was always enough for everyone, because Phil knew that everyone would want one.
In the worst years of the depression landlords offered one month’s free rent when you moved. So Phil and Pauline moved their family every year into various apartments, mostly in the same building. I imagine that, over time, the sweet smell of Phil’s onions seeped through the doorstops and central drafts of the building. This being New York he must have heard complaints. But surely there was praise also for Phil’s sandwich even, I like to think, amongst the Irish Catholics.
I never met Phil—he died long before I was born. And my mother is dead too. But when I make an onion sandwich the savory scent brings both of them back to me and to a time when a tip in the morning and an onion sandwich were all you needed to live well, very well indeed.
Take some onions. Slice thickly. Saute them very slowly in plenty of butter with salt and pepper until they are soft and the color of caramel. Have slices of white bread handy. When your guests are ready, spoon the onions onto the bread, make a sandwich, and serve. The sandwich should be somewhat gloppy. A glass of white wine goes well and a small glass of vodka, if you are a Russian, goes even better.
Chloe’s note: Here’s a fried onion sandwich recipe I inadvertently came across in a 1915 edition of the Milwaukee Journal.
Fried Onion Sandwiches
Cut the onions into rings about half an inch thick. Melt the butter in a large cast iron skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions, cover loosely with foil or partially with a lid, and cook slowly until well-caramelized on the bottom. (Make sure you check on them frequently in the beginning in case you need to adjust the heat.) Flip the onion slices over with a spatula and continue to cook until browned on the other side. The whole process should take about 40 minutes. Sprinkle the onions slices with salt and pepper and transfer to a plate. Rub one side of the bread slices in the pan. Assemble the sandwiches with the greasy sides of the bread on the inside.
*Note: Any kind of bread will work, but this is a pretty plebeian sandwich from the first half of the 20th century so I recommend sticking with generic sandwich bread, not fancy bakery loaves. However, a chewy sourdough might contrast nicely with the soft, sweet onions.